The High Priest, the Pope and I

Part 2 of My Struggle with Persuasion and the Truth Concerning other Religions

Tenth of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz  (For the first question, click here. For the second question, click here. For the third question, click here. For the fourth question, click here. For the fifth question, click here. For the sixth question, click here. For part one of the seventh question, click here.  For part two of the seventh question, click here. For the eighth question, click here. For the first part of the ninth question, click here.  For the second part of the ninth question, click here. For the third part of the ninth question, click here.  For the fourth part of the ninth question, click here. For the first part of the tenth question, click here.)

Question 10, Part 2:

In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of “Rabbi Cardozo” suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them? 

Nathan Lopes Cardozo:

Now, I’m going to make an unexpected switch. I know that I’m running the risk of having some readers not understand what I’m trying to get at, having them accuse me of arrogance, and even infuriating them. Still, I’ll take that risk for reasons that I will try to explain:

I often wonder how I would have done had I been the pope. Yes, that’s a strange question to ask. But I believe I would have done pretty well. The reason is obvious. There is no greater spiritual business opportunity than the papacy. The Catholic Church consists of 1.2 billion people spread throughout the world. When you follow the life of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), you can see how great is the power of speech and how many people you can bring into “the faith.” John Paul was larger than life and possessed unusual charisma. He was known as “the flying pope,” because much of his time was spent in airplanes that took him to every corner of the world to preach the gospel. When you watch the massive Masses he conducted, where a gathering of a million—largely consisting of young people—was considered a small crowd, or if you see what happened at St. Peter’s Square in Rome when he appeared for the first time as pope, or how millions of people including non-Catholics came to bid him farewell after he died, you are utterly astonished by the outpouring of religious spontaneity, emotional responses, and spiritual upheaval.

This is unprecedented. The same seems to happen with the current Pope Francis. He, too, has a great deal of charisma; and his humility and desire to live an austere life makes him extremely popular and influential.

One must realize that the pontificate was originally founded on the position of the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) in the days of the Temple in Yerushalayim. Later on, the Church disconnected it from the position of High Priest and transferred it to Paul in the New Testament. So that’s really a later invention to avoid admitting that the papacy has its roots in Judaism, and is an attempt to reject Judaism in its entirety. While the High Priest was to primarily serve the Jewish people, the truth is that his task was to serve all of humankind, since the Temple was to be a place where all the nations of the world could worship God (Yeshayahu 56: 6-7); and it was the Kohein Gadol who stood at the center of the Temple service.

However blasphemous this may sound, the Kohein Gadol was to be the original pope. Basically, the papacy is a Jewish function, tasked not with the mission of spreading the gospel, but rather promulgating monotheism, morality and the Torah, as far as it is applicable to the non-Jewish world. I therefore claim that, while I doubt I have the charisma of John Paul II, or of Francis, I could have done a reasonable job as a Jewish pope. And so could other rabbis.

In fact, I can think of rabbis of the past and present who could have done a much better job than I could ever do: Maimonides, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel and, lehavdil ben chayim lechayim, Rav Yitz Greenberg, one of the most important Orthodox rabbis in the United States and, sadly, almost completely unknown in Israel. (By the way, Rav Kook was a Kohein, and so is Rav Greenberg. I, however, am not!)

Although I am not a follower of Chabad, I believe that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l, would have been an excellent candidate. While he was a fervent traditionalist, he possessed a messianic and universal vision in which Judaism would play an important role in the future. Not only did he build the largest Jewish outreach program worldwide, which despite its shortcomings was and is remarkably successful even after his passing, but his shlichim (emissaries) are to be found in every corner of the world. (Not much different from the Catholic Church, but on a much smaller scale!) Moreover, he constantly emphasized the need to make contact with the non-Jewish world and promulgate “the seven mitzvot of Noach,” as expressed by the sages in the Talmud and by Maimonides (Sanhedrin 56a-60b, and Rambam’s Mishneh TorahHilchot Melachim 8:10; 10:12). These laws may be called the “Ten Commandments” for the non-Jewish world. They are the basis of all monotheistic morality and played an enormous role in the development of international law. (See the works of the great non-Jewish jurists: Hugo Grotius’s De Jure Belli ac Pacis, 1625, and John Selden’s De Jure Naturali et Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum, 1640.) The Rebbe asked President Ronald Reagan to publicly emphasize these seven commandments, which the president did on April 4, 1982, in celebration of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel